Armenia, land of rich culture, striking landscapes, crappy roads and a tragic history

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Asia » Armenia
June 16th 2018
Published: June 30th 2018
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I think that title just about sums up Armenia in one sentence! I do like the way Lonely Planet summarises Armenia:

"Few nations have histories as ancient, as complex and as laced with tragedy as Armenia. But even fewer have a culture that is as rich and as resilient”.

As stated, Armenia has a long and tragic history of wars and conflicts, a number of which continue to this day. It was invaded in the early days by Mongols, Persians, Turks, Russians and many more, and even today it is in conflict with two of its immediate neighbours, with whom it has closed borders. There has been a long-simmering argument about the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of Armenians between 1915 and 1922, which the Armenians consider constitutes a genocide but this is vehemently denied by the Turks. As such there are currently no diplomatic relations between the two countries and the borders are closed. Its feud with neighbouring Azerbaijan is quite different. It revolves around the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies within the borders of Azerbaijan but is inhabited almost exclusively by Armenians, resulting in this region to be considered independent by the UN. Even today there are frequent local political demonstrations - as recently as this April, street demonstrations resulted in the resignation of the political leader who had been President for the last ten years.

There almost seem to be two separate Armenias - the relatively prosperous capital city of Yerevan and the countryside where most Armenians struggle to make a living out of agriculture or mining work. In Yerevan, there are many outdoor cafes and wine bars where locals and tourists alike can be seen consuming coffees, wine or beers, and the city has a number of open squares such as Republic Square and Opera Square where crowds gather regularly. On the other hand, despite the magnificent scenery, the country roads are in very poor shape with many potholes (I know - I was in the back seat of our minibus, right above the rear wheels!) and flanked on many occasions, especially close to the borders, by abandoned ex-Soviet factories that have been considered financially unworthy of renovation. In all our travels, I can’t remember seeing too many houses away from the city that didn’t look as though they were built back in the Soviet era.

Armenia’s tourism industry away from Yerevan revolves very much around this spectacular natural scenery and its extraordinary number of medieval monasteries, most of which are set in scenic surrounds and are quite accessible. Armenian monasteries have a number of distinctive features, including conical domes mounted on cylindrical drums and many contain large narthexes or entrance rooms. Most contain some degree of stone decoration and carved memorial stones, but strangely, frescoes are extremely rare. Armenia is an Oriental Orthodox Christian country, and the Armenian Apostolic Church was the first legal Christian Church in the world, dating back to the start of the 4th century. Religious complexes visited on our trip included:

· Haghpat Monastery, near Dilijan, which occupies a commanding position overlooking a gorge. It was founded in 966 and added to in the 12th and 13th centuries.

· Sevanavank Monastery, which is located on a peninsula at the north-western shore of Lake Sevan, and was founded in 874. It was originally mainly intended for those monks from Echmiadzin who had sinned.

· Noravank Monastery, which was built in the 13th century but renovated in the 1990s and comprises two churches and a chapel

· Khor Virap Monastery, which overlooks Mt Ararat, often filmed as a backdrop. The main church dates from the 17th century and the site also comprises some excavations.

. Geghard Monastery, which is carved out of the rock face of the Azat River Gorge, dating back to the 4th century with additions made in the 12th century

· Garni Temple, built in the 1st century, this Hellenic-style temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 1679 but largely rebuilt around fifty years ago

· St Hripsime Church, built in 618 on the site where St Hripsime was slain for refusing to give up her faith and marry a Roman emperor

· Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin, which is the equivalent of the Vatican for the Armenian Apostolic Church, functioning as the capital of Armenia from 180 to 340

· Zvartnots Cathedral, built in the 7th century and destroyed in the 10th, the ruins were only excavated and partially reconstructed last century

Apart from monasteries, we spend a most interesting couple of hours at the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum in Yerevan, which commemorates the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, told through photographs, documents, newspaper reports and films. Also, at the conclusion of our visit, as were unable to fly direct from Armenia back to Turkey where we had Sydney return air tickets, we decided instead to catch the South Caucasus/Georgian Railway express from Yerevan back to Tbilisi. What a great experience, travelling first class on an old Soviet rattler for a 10 hour trip through the countryside, including a 90 minute stop at the border. Unfortunately we didn't win too many favours from the cabin attendant, a Soviet-looking lady on the wrong side of 'middle age' whose blouse was far too tight and skirt far too short, and whose favourite word was 'nyet'!

Some other interesting trivia that we learnt about Armenia is as follows:

Yerevan has come to be known as Armenia’s Pink City given that its Soviet-era buildings are virtually all constructed out of pink stones from the surrounding landscape. The colour is brightest at sunrise and sunset, and changes throughout the day based on where the sun hits it. This unique building stone is actually lava rock and bears various shades of pink, ranging from light pastels to bright with a hint of orange. Scientifically, it’s known as tuff, a rock made of compacted volcanic ash that was ejected from a vent during an eruption. Pink tuff is rare outside of the region and Yerevan is the only major city built out of this stone.

Interestingly, we heard that Mt Ararat (of Noah’s Ark fame) plays an important part in the Armenian psyche, despite that fact that it now resides inside the Turkish border, as set by the Treaty of Kars of 1921. While the latter country's residents tend to just think of it as another high mountain, the hold of Mt Ararat in the popular imagination of Armenian society was reinforced when the mountain featured on the Armenian coats-of-arms. It is also featured in the names and logos of countless public institutions and private companies in the country, from football clubs to brandy and wine factories, as well as dominating the skyline of the capital Yerevan.

The most popular sports in Armenia these days tend to be wrestling, weightlifting, boxing and chess. So what do these sports all have in common? They are individual sports. Our guide, Anahit, had an explanation for Armenia’s poor track record in team sports. She claimed that the Armenian ego is such that everyone wants to do things their way, so if you had a competition between a single person and a group of people to complete a task, the single person would have it completed before the group had stopped arguing as to whose method was going to be adapted!

Well 'that's all folks' as we take our leave from the Caucasus, but I'll follow up with a brief blog summarising my reflections on my two weeks in the Caucasus.

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30th June 2018

Brings me back to our foray in that ancient land last August, Neil. Nice summary. You should check out my blogs where I dealt in detail with the Armenian Genocide, the Monasteries & Khachkars and of course the most beautiful women in the World.
1st July 2018

Yeah, I remember reading your Armenian Genocide and the other accompanying blogs long ago when I first decided to visit these parts. Your treatment is of course a little deeper than mine in all areas but was an interesting read once again now that I'm back home. Our Armenian guide, Anahit, was very attractive - no coincidence, huh!
2nd July 2018

Very nice
A very nice and balanced and well written blog- nice pictures too. Enjoyed it.
3rd July 2018

Thanks for the nice comments. It's always good to get some appreciation!
3rd July 2018

Armenia rich in culture
We traveling with Dancing Dave and his wife Denise. You'll have to check out our blogs when you get home. Great country.
3rd July 2018

Armenia rich in culture
Yes, I remember reading all of David's blogs just after we had booked the trip. He certainly goes into greater detail on some of his topics than I do!
3rd July 2018

Dancing Dave
The dancing one is detailed and verbose and that is one of the things we love about him. If you look at our blogs from that trip we are not so detailed. MJ :)
4th July 2018

Dancing Dave
Yes, I had read your blog early in my planning phase too, MJ. I've just run through it again, and as you do, I enjoyed the memories, even though I've only been back a couple of weeks. In many ways, I envy you that trip, doing it independently, as that is my preferred mode of travel and allows you to focus on some of the items (eg people and food) that you don't get the same opportunities when you are on a group tour. Sadly my wife doesn't share my enthusiasm and sense of adventure and much prefers our annual 5 star visits to the US to visit our grandchildren in Virginia.

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